Thursday, November 26, 2009

Bringing government into the age of persistent communications

Many organisations use campaign-based communications models.

They develop their campaign strategy, identify and engage their audience, communicate a message, then wind down the campaign and allow the audience to disengage and disperse.

At a future time, when the audience no longer seems influenced by the previous message, they repeat this process - potentially reusing campaign materials, but having to locate and engage the audience all over again.

A cynic could call this communications amnesia - we deliberately forget all about our audiences as soon as we've finished shouting our message at them.

I prefer to call this episodic communications as it operates very similarly to episodic programming, at the end of each episode the set may remain in place, but the actors are returned to their starting points.

Social media, on the other hand, allows organisations to cost-effectively establish an ongoing relationship with their audiences.

By developing online spaces where their audience can gather and interact, seeding them with content and well-considered participation guidelines, organisations can encourage audience members to join and participate in a community around a given topic for an extended period of time.

Best of all the approach supports and improves the efficiency of episodic communications campaigns by providing a ready-made engaged audience who can be encouraged to pay attention to new messages at significantly less additional cost.

I call this approach persistent communications.

I'm starting to see governments use social media tools to build engaged audiences around specific topics - from the Digital Economy and National Culture Policy to yourHealth.

However so far I have seen limited appreciation of how these audiences can be leveraged as persistent communities of interest.

To me it makes sense that once you've invested money, resources and time into building one of these groups, it is worth continuing to invest a small amount to keep the group - a budding community - functioning and growing.

This turns it into an ongoing resource that can be leveraged in the future for additional input or directed into future campaign-based initiatives.

This can create a positive feedback loop - with campaigns becoming more cost-effective over time.

Campaign (used to build a) -> Persistent audience (leveraged into further) -> Campaigns (used to build a) -> (bigger) Persistent audience -> and so on.

This approach hasn't been totally ignored in government.

Future Melbourne has done a reasonable job of maintaining its momentum. It makes sense - Melbourne has a long future ahead of it, why not leverage the investment in the community by keeping them engaged and willing to participate. It saves money, time and effort.

Similarly Bang The Table has been peppering me with additional consultations being held by the ACT government, leveraging my participation in an earlier consultation as someone who is interested and willing to comment on further topics over time (although they've not yet taken the step to build a profile for me and invite me to consultations from other governments which fit my interest profile).

Most commercial organisations know that a relationship with a customer is worth its weight in gold. Once a customer is deeply engaged with one of your products you are able to leverage this into new areas at much lower cost than - take Apple's progression from computers to music players to phones or Sony's fiercely loyal Playstation audience.

Government also has this opportunity to use persistent communication centred on social media to build and sustain persistent relationships with our community.

We can leverage interest in one consultation via one department at one level of government into future interest in another engagement activity in a different agency in another government level through sustaining an persistent communications strategy.

This would save significant public money, however to get there we will need to rethink our departmental communications approaches - revisiting our systems for developing, governing, tracking and analysing communications.

From episodic communications tactics to a persistent communications strategy -should we call this Communications 2.0?


  1. These are interesting ideas worth exploring. A couple of thoughts spring to mind:
    * Is persistent communication made up of related episodic communication? Or is persistent communication just a really long episodic communication?
    * Is a persistent community the right approach in all circumstances? Is there a risk that a ready made community introduces group think or becomes a barrier to new participants?
    * What is the role for non-government organisations or group (formal or informal) to maintain this community?
    * Who 'owns' the community?
    * We might assume that people want to engage with government using anonymous or multiple identities, but is there also an argument that people should be able create a profile of interests and activity so that they can be invited to participate?

  2. Hi James,

    I reckon persistent communication requires a different mindset to the campaign model.

    The ongoing commitment to engagement, rather than an episodic one, means that the organisation is giving up another level of control over the conversation.

    Rather than controlling when a communications program starts and stops, the organisation must be responsive to when and where the audience wishes to communicate.

    Also a persistent community doesn't necessarily need to include episodic communications.

    Regarding community formation, longevity and ownership - those are subsidiary topics that have not been greatly explored in the age of episodic communications.

    Personally I believe that organisations can more effectively support and foster communities (particularly pre-existing ones) rather than create their own. Organisations need to take a position that they are one of the participants and not necessarily a driver. For an organisation, being part of these communities is a privilege not a right.

    On that basis organisations cannot own communities, though they can influence them (particularly if controlling the platform). However if this influence is too overt, is at odds with the community's dominant view or is expressed in an arrogant manner, organisations risk seeing the community defect to another service enmasse - cutting them out of the discussion altogether.

    I am a strong supporter of a model where individuals can develop a profile of interests and be invited to participate (regardless of department or government level) in appropriate consultations. It doesn't violate the opt-in model and supports better consultation outcomes in the long-run.

    In fact I've designed a system to do precisely that - and if I can find a decent developer to work with me gratis (or some funds) I'll build it as a private individual as a public good.

  3. I think part of the persistent communication approach - particularly one that is responsive to emerging demands from the community - will depend on empowering people within agencies to engage online in a semi-autonomous way. This will be as much about what happens within agencies as it will be about the visible engagement externally.

    You might be interested in this post I wrote back in March on my old blog: Handover your brand, but empower staff at the same time. I commented:

    "Some might suggest that you don't need to build that social computing infrastructure internally as this is the role for a community manager. But I suspect if a community manager represents the end of the line for engagement with customers then, well, we might see a lot of talk but not a lot of action from the rest of the organisation... which will ultimately bite you in that external social media space."

  4. Hi James,

    I agree.

    I believe that it is possible to establish frameworks for communication by topic, which permit public servants to engage within agreed parameters without seeking senior approval.

    This would speed up and improve the credibility of online engagement by public servants whilst leaving sensitive issues managed appropriately within standard approval processes.

    Another benefit of this approach beyond having more engaged and committed staff (who feel more valued), would be freeing up senior level resources to focus on the strategic issues, rather than spending large proportions of their time - and correspondingly great sums of public money - on mundane approvals for non-sensitive material.

    Better public sector resource utilisation, higher staff commitment, faster customer service and a risk-mitigation framework in place with clear escalation processes. What's not to like.

  5. I think yours is a poet's perspective, this movement from episodic to persistent. It should spawn many instructive metaphors, some of which you've already offered.

    E.g. 'Rolling wheels, not blocks'.

    Good literature!



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